TGS 2016 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE PAC 12--PART II
After previewing the North half of the Pac-12 in our previous installment, we focus on Senior Editor Chuck Sippl's preview of the South half of the loop. Once again, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with last year’s SU, pointspread, over/under records and bowl results included--Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor...
by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor
UCLA (SUR 8-5; PSR 5-7-1; O/U 4-9. Lost 37-29 to Nebraska in Foster Farms Bowl)...There will be a new emphasis this season at UCLA, as HC Jim Mora Jr. (37-16 in four years in Westwood; new extension through 2021) seeks to fully exploit the immense potential of soph QB Josh Rosen (60.0%, 3670 YP, 23 TDs, 11 ints. as a true freshman starter). It seems like the logical time for Mora to alter the Bruins’ offensive system, as former coordinator Noel Mazzone has taken his considerable experience to Texas A&M (UCLA’s opening-game opponent!) after four years of mentoring Brett Hundley and Rosen in his version of the spread.
Taking over as the new off. coord. will be RBs coach Kennedy Polamalu, and Mora has brought aboard former University of Washington QB Marques Tuiasosopo to help refine Rosen, whose pure throwing skills exceed those of Hundley, but who lacks the latter’s impressive escapabililty from pocket. Thus, the revised attack will include taking some snaps under center in addition to the familiar Bruin shotgun, the inclusion fullbacks and in-line TEs, and many opportunities for Rosen to change offensive plays depending the defensive alignment. Rosen had great success in high school orchestrating a similar scheme, so—with Mazzone moving on—the timing was right for “Chosen Rosen” to assume greater on-field responsibility in the attack. Tuiasosopo has been tasked with aiding Rosen’s decision making and with trimming his turnovers.
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RB Paul Perkins, who accumulated 1575 & 1343 YR the past two seasons, left early for the NFL (and was one of eight Bruins selected in the draft), so the UCLA will be using a RB-by-committee approach until one of soph Soso Jamabo (403 YR), jr. Nate Starks (320), or soph Bolu Olorunfunmi (34) seizes control of the No. 1 spot.
Four of Rosen’s top five pass catchers are not returning, so the WR, TE and FB spots were points of focus in spring. Mora says 5-10 sr. Kenneth Walker III (9 recs. for 231 yards LY) showed major development as a deep threat in spring, while 6-3 jr. Eldridge Massington (11 recs. LY) provides height and potential. With improving depth on defense, Mora has moved scrappy 5-8 sr. CB Ishmael Adams (three TDs on int. & KORs two years ago) to offense, and doesn’t seem prone to switch him back. One unexpected plus in spring was the return of Cordell Broadus (son of Snoop Dogg), a 6-3, four-star WR deep threat who gave up football in 2015, but now is a redshirt freshman with lots of potential if his renewed appetite for the game persists. The FB and TE spots were filled satisfactorily, at least for spring work.
The OL lost three starters, including four-year center Jake Brendel, the leader of the unit. Getting bigger and deeper up front has always been a Mora priority in recruiting. So the front five now has more depth, especially if offseason surgery rehabs by several players go well. The most important development will be that of jr. Scott Quesenberry at C.
The defense will have to replace two dominating players in DT Kenny Clark (first round to Green Bay) and the versatile Myles Jack, who was considered one of the top five talents in the 2016 draft until sustaining a major knee injury in Game Three and eventually falling into the second round in April. But there is a plus side in that replacement Jayon Brown went on to lead the team with 93 tackles. Starting DE Eddie Vanderdoes (5½ sacks in 2014) returns after having been lost to an ACL in last year’s first game. Meanwhile, sr. DE Takkarist McKinley(4½ sacks LY) continued to develop in spring and showed signs of emerging as a top-notch pass rusher. Five-star LB recruit Mique Juarez enrolled prior to spring showed the potential to make an early impact.
The secondary is speedy and athletic, led by S Jaleel Wadood & S/CB Randall Gofourth (two ints. each). Overall, the 2015 Bruin defense (allowed 77 points combined points in the last two games, vs. USC and Nebraska; also 38 vs. Arizona State; 56 at Stanford) seemed to wear down at times, as many stop units tend to do on teams with uptempo attacks (ask TCU and Oregon). Mora hopes that this year’s revised offensive style will yield just as many points (32.2 pg), but also will provide more helpful ball control to save wear tear on the defense (26.0 ppg LY).
One hole that could be hard to fill will be that of four-year kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, who got off to a rocky career start as a freshman, but subsequently made 20 of 24 FGs LY, won the Lou Groza Award, and ended up the top scorer in Pac-12 history. True freshman JJ Molson is considered to have a good chance to become the next in the line of outstanding kickers in Westwood. Incoming punter Austin Kent also faces lofty expectations. And the once-again ascending Bruin program received another boost in May, with UCLA leaving longtime supplier Adidas and announcing a 15-year, $280 million deal with Under Armour, racheting up the apparel war vs. the many Nike teams in the Pac-12.
Summary...After last year’s 8-5 relative disappointment (5-4 in conference), UCLA—with many new pieces—will have to hustle to improve those marks, as five of the six teams in the competitive Pac-12 South were bowl teams in 2015. However, the Bruins face a slew of opponents that will be breaking in new starting QBs this fall. So the opportunity might be there if soph Rosen continues his advance, as expected. In a stat that both drives HC Mora crazy and is a measure of his progress with the UCLA program, his Bruins have never defeated either rugged Stanford or speedy Oregon during his tenure in Westwood. The Bruins host Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal (with their new QB) September 24.
SOUTHERN CAL (SUR 8-6; PSR 6-8; O/U 7-7. Lost 23-21 to Wisconsin in Holiday Bowl)...Following three years that involved four coaching changes and two athletic directors, Clay Helton is seeking stability for the talented Trojans. Now the full-time head man of Southern Cal after going a combined 6-4 in two stints as interim HC, Helton will try to provide stability for his team both on and off the field. As a former college QB at Houston and long-time college offensive assistant, has several aspects to his plan.
On the field, with steady, efficient QB Cody Kessler (88 career TDP vs. only 19 ints.) having graduated, Helton must first select a new starting QB. And, with that drop-off in experience at QB, Helton wants to utilize his deep and experienced offensive line to help the offense exert itself in the running game, grind down opposing defenses, and then strike for big plays. Until the new passing game blossoms, there will be greater use of the Trojans’ strong cast of RBs and TEs for more ball control. Speed-burning WR/KR/CB Adoree’ Jackson will see less time on offense and more time on defense.
Off the field, Helton wants to provide calm, steady, consistent and confident leadership after the enigmatic approach of Lane Kiffin, the emotional bluster of Ed Orgeron, and the often hyper, excitable approach of Steve Sarkisian. One big difference at Troy will be less“Hollywood” and more attention to detail at Trojan practices. Less of the blaring music; more nuts and bolts. Fewer high-profile visitors; more true grit.
With two major, but untested talents at QB, Helton declined to name a starter after spring and said the competition will continue in August. Leading the way is 6-5 redshirt jr. Max Browne, the backup to Kessler the L2Ys. He is 11 of 19 for his career and was a blue-chip recruit after being named the National Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012. Mounting a surprising challenge this spring was 6-4 redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, who had 39 TDP as a high school senior. Considering that the Trojans’ 2016 opener is against defending national champion Alabama at the Jerry Jones dome in Arlington, Helton is likely to go with all the QB experience he can get.
After all, the September schedule doesn’t ease up after the contest vs. the Crimson Tide. Game Two is vs. respectable Utah State. But Game Three is at Stanford and A-A RB Christian McCaffrey, while Game Four is at always-physical Utah.
Thus, it’s no surprise that Helton is cutting down a few frills in the Trojan attack in favor of a return to basics. Four starters return to the OL, including future high draftee T Zach Banner, a 6-9, 360 road grader with improving pass pro skills. C Max Tuerk has moved on to the pros (Chargers), but his backups and several other young OLmen recorded valuable experience LY when Tuerk, starting G Toa Lobendahn, and LT Chad Wheeler were all injured. G Damien Mama (6-4, 355 jr.) and others now have valuable experience to go with their size.
Those quality “hogs” will be carving holes for an impressive Southern Cal RB corps, led by 6-0, 185 soph Ronald Jones II, who emerged LY to dart for 987 YR and 6.5 ypc. More experienced and just about as good is sr. Justin Davis, with 902 YR. Also competing for carries are two of LY’s top recruits, sophs Dominic Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware, a duo bursting with potential.
The top WR targets are also well established, led by 6-2, 215 jr. star JuJu Smith-Schuster, who romped for 1454 yards and 10 TDs on 89 recs. LY. There are other WR options in 5-10 jr. Steven Mitchell Jr. (37 recs. LY) and 6-1 sr. Darreus Rogers (28). Helton says he will seek to avoid over-using versatile, darting 5-11 jr. speedball WR/KR/CB Adoree’ Jackson. Jackson ruffled a few feathers when he skipped most of spring ball to focus on track & field, where he won the Pac-12 long-jump championship. A blazing WR who had 27 recs. for 414 yards and 3 TDs LY, Jackson is being ticketed for a starting CB job (35 Ts, 1 int. LY), with only a handful of plays each week on offense. Jackson will get other touches through his punt-return duties, where he sped for two TDs in 24 attempts.
Jackson’s presence at CB, opposite freshman A-A Iman Marshall, gives the Trojans a CB duo that will be among the more athletic in the conference. The middle of the field will be protected by jr. safeties Chris Hawkins & John Plattenburg, who had two picks each as sophs.
The main concern for the Trojan defense is in the front seven, which said good-by all starting DLmen in the USC 3-4, then lost projected 2016 DE starter Kenny Bigelow (3 sacks LY) due to an ACL in spring. USC will thus be inexperienced up front, although, with Troy’s high-quality recruiting, the drop-off isn’t likely to be as severe as with other programs that must replace their entire DL. Helping to fill the gaps will be the likes of soph DE Rasheem Green (a blue-chipper out of high school), soph Malik Dorton (once an OLB, who had a promising spring), and incoming juco Noah Fatu. 6-7 DE Connor Williams and other true freshmen might also be able to earn playing time.
The LB crew is likely rebuilding at three of four spots, while hoping that 6-2, 245 2015 freshman star Cam Smith will be fully recovered from LY’s ACL surgery after his 10th game LY. Before his injury, the impressive Smith had 78 Ts as a “rookie” and destroyed the Utah offense with three interceptions in a 42-24 USC victory. The situation of sr. OLB Scott Felix (4 sacks LY) has been clouded by a suspension due to a banned substance. The Trojans have specifically been recruiting LBs for height and range in recent years, and those young players will get their chance TY.
Southern Cal was +11 in TO margin LY, but that degree of positivity will be difficult to match considering the Trojans’ inexperience at QB combined with one of the more difficult schedules in the U.S. The rush defense was 41st in the nation (149.3 ypg) and held foes to a respectable 4.0 ypc LY, while pass rushers collected 38 sacks. But USC might not be able to match those stats considering the many new starting faces in the front seven. PK Alex Wood connected on 13 of 17 FG attempts LY, but has decided not to return for his redshirt senior year, so Troy will have inexperience in the kicking game and might also drop off in that category.
Summary...Trojan great and Hall of Fame WR Lynn Swann takes over as athletic director following the health issues affecting Pat Haden. So, the well-liked Helton (hired by Haden) faces this year’s rugged string of foes with a team with strengths in some areas, but with considerable inexperience in others. However, on the plus side, the controversial scholarship limitations at Troy are now past, and recent recruiting classes have included bountiful harvests of four and five-star high-school players. How well Helton develops those talented, less-experienced players will determine whether he can hang tough in the competitive Pac-12 South, or become overwhelmed by a schedule with only a few breathers. A return trip to the league title game seems unlikely.
ARIZONA STATE (SUR 7-6; PSR 6-7; O/U 5-7-1. Lost 43-42 to West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl)...A curious team is ASU. A creative, fast-paced offense generated 450 points (34.6 ppg) last season. But the team’s high-risk, high-reward defense gave up 435 (33.5 pg). Last year’s Sun Devil offense produced a 3000-yard passer (Mike Bercovici, a Chargers FA signee), a 1000-yard rusher (jr. Demario Richard), and a 1000-yard receiver (Devin Lucien; Patriots 7th round). But even with a nation-leading 46 sacks, the blitzing Arizona State defense was burned for more passing yards than any team in the country (4392; 338 pg), also allowing more pass plays of 40 or more yards than any team! That meant a lot of good Sun Devil offense went for naught.
Two good examples of ASU’s “good-hit, no-pitch” season were its final game, a its 43-42 bowl loss to West Virginia, when the Mountaineers racked up 676 yards and scored the winning TD with two minutes to play. This after their final game of the Pac-12 campaign, when the Sun Devils gave up 680 yards and then the winning FG at the gun in a 48-46 loss at Cal. Enough said.
But before taking a look at what is being done on defense, there are some major considerations on offense, starting with the QB position. According to Arizona State, the Sun Devils are the only FBS team without a QB who has any official pass attempts in Division I heading into this season. (The ASU sports information department concedes that reserve QB Manny Wilkins did attempt and did complete a pass last year as a freshman, but the dept. also points out that the play was wiped out by a penalty.)
In the running for starting QB this season are three—6-3 current soph Wilkins, a strong-armed dual threat; 6-2 redshirt freshman Brady White, a four-star recruit who had 101 TDP in his career at L.A.-area Hart High; and 6-3, 215 redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins, a four-star dual threat from Chandler High near Tempe. Understandably, HC Todd Graham—beginning his fifth season at ASU—says he will delay naming a starter until the week of the team’s opener vs. Northern Arizona. Insiders say Wilkins seemed to enjoy a slight lead coming out of spring, while White displayed the best touch on the ball.
HC Graham also will have a new offensive coordinator after Mike Norvell left for the head coaching job at Memphis. Incoming is Chip Lindsey, a one-time high school coach who spent the L2Ys helping to reinvigorate the program at Southern Miss (9-5 last season). Lindsey, also a former assistant to Gus Malzahn, will add his input to Graham’s already successful deceptive and fast-paced misdirection attack that tallied 34 or more points eight times LY.
In addition to deciding on a new starting QB, the offense must also uncover four new OL starters, with sr. LT Evan Goodman the only returnee. Sr. Stephen McCray appears ticketed for one of the guard spots, while juco C A.J. McCollum appears to be No. 1 in the middle after helping his JC team to a 12-1 record in San Francisco. Due partly to playing from behind so often LY, the Sun Devils gave up 39 sacks (111th in the nation).
The RB platoon is strong, with the 5-11, 220 Richard (1098 YR, 5.3 ypc) and 6-3, 230 Kalen Ballage (653 YR) taking rurns. At WR, 5-11 sr. Tim White (57 recs., 8 TDC) returns, as does 5-11 jr. Cam Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, but who had 41 recs. in 2014 and was running first team in spring. The Sun Devils have high hopes for 6-4 true freshman N’Keal Harry, who adds not only height, but also a valuable vertical threat to the attack.
ASU’s stunting, attacking, hybrid 3-4 defense obviously has long way to go, considering 2015's numbers. But there are some positives going into this year. Interior DLs sr. Latu Villiami and Tashon Smallwood had 3½ and 2 sacks, respectively, LY and have added strength. So has 6-3, 280 DE JoJo Walker, who had 4 sacks and 7½ TFL as a freshman and who has the potential to become one of the of the Pac-12's better pass rushers. Highly-regarded juco LB/DE Koron Crump enrolled early and flashed excellent edge-rushing potential in spring.
With three proven LBs (sr. Salamo Fiso, jr. Christian Sam, jr. D.J. Calhoun) returning, def. coord. Keith Patterson tried 6-1, 215 sr. LB Laiu Moeakiola (51 Ts LY) at safety in the spring. With the secondary needing to replace three starters, Moeakiola might stay there to provide experience and tackling ability. The lone returning starter is a good one, as 5-11 Kareem Orr had 6 ints. LY after being forced into early action at safety. Orr might move to corner this fall, as jr. S Armand Perry is back after playing only two games LY due to an ankle injury. And, in order to help shore up the team’s weakest position, HC Graham has added juco CBs Maurice Chandler and J’Marcus Rose, both early enrollees who went through spring. The CB spot received further attention in spring, with WR Tim White and sr. reserve RB De’Chavon (“Gump”) Hayes also getting a look. Even if White stays on offense, Graham has indicated he might be able to help out in the secondary on third downs. And Hayes will get an extended look at CB in August.
After last year’s massive aerial allowances, including 35 TDP, def. coord. Patterson says says his team’s primary goal is still to stop the run, and then attack. But he admits ASU will likely be “maybe a little more calculated in how we go about doing that; take some of the stress off the secondary, but still be aggressive.”
The kicking game is in good hands, with sr. PK Zane Gonzalez (26 of 34 LT) and sr. P Matt Haack both returning.
Summary...With major inexperience at QB, a rebuilt OL, and start-of-the season concerns on defense, Arizona State does not appear ready at the outset to compete for the top spot in the Pac-12 South in 2016. Of course, a victory in Game Five at Southern Cal followed by another triumph in Game Six vs. UCLA would change that outlook considerably. Without saying so, Graham seems to understand as much, spending much of spring repeatedly testing his young QBs in situational football—third-downs, facing red-zone blitzes, backed up deep near their own goal. But there’s still a lot of learning needed at QB, the O-line, and at DB before ASU makes another run at the league championship game.
ARIZONA (SUR 7-6; PSR 5-7-1; O/U 11-2. Defeated New Mexico 45-37 in New Mexico Bowl)...Two years ago, Arizona captured the South to advance to the Pac-12 championship. It didn’t work out too well, with Oregon winning 51-13 to give the North its fourth straight title. Last year, Arizona fought through injuries to key players QB Anu Solomon, RB Nick Wilson and MLB Scooby Wright, but the Wildcats needed a 45-37 victory in the lower-tier New Mexico Bowl just to post a marginal winning record of 7-6. However, that 2015 campaign produced the fourth bowl in four years for HC Rich Rodriguez in Tucson, marking the first time ever U of A has been to four straight bowls.
Arizona has a decent nucleus returning this season, including QB Solomon and top RB Wilson. Despite LY’s injuries, coach RichRod’s volatile, variable, versatile spread option produced a nice 37.4 ppg, good enough for 20th in the nation. The rushing offense was 23rd, and it generated 5.5 ypc. The balanced Wildcats had 31 rushing TDs and 27 passing TDs. However, the undersized, mostly Scooby-less U of A defense gave up 30 rush TDs, 28 pass TDs, not to mention 35.8 ppg (a lowly 107th). Size and depth have long been a problem for the Tucson school, which is still seeking its first Rose Bowl berth.
RichRod’s uptempo spread should be very productive again this season. Solomon (62%, 20 TDs, only 5 ints.) should be even better as a junior after missing most or all of three 2015 games due to concussion problems. Solomon passed for 3793 yards as a freshman, but that number dropped to only 2667 in 2015. The hard-to-stop 5-10, 215 Nick Wilson missed four games entirely and parts of four others with knee and foot injuries, yet still picked up 725 YR on 5.5 ypc. Providing depth at QB willl be 6-3 soph Branden Dawkins (20 of 38 LY), who is still developing as a passer, but with 179 YR as a freshman, Dawkins is likely to see some playing time in most games to provide a change of pace vs. opposing defenses, as Solomon does not excel as a runner.
The depth at RB is long, but short. Literally. As in not tall. 5-8 soph Orlando Bradford (208 yards rushing LY) was one of U of A’s bright spots in spring. 5-8 RS freshman Branden Leon is a darter. And 5-10, 220 jr. Zach Green (out 10 games LY) packs a useful wallop.
Smurfs also dot the WR crew, including 5-9 sr. Samajie Grant (55 recs. LY), 5-7 Nate Phillips (44), and 508 Shun Brown (4 recs. in 2015, but a bright spring). Coaches hope that 6-3 Trey Griffey 11 recs. for 25.8 ypr LY) will have a breakout sr. season to provide passers as a bigger target.
Three of five starters return in the OL, where Rodriguez has succeeded in developing height, including 6-7 Jacob Alsadek, 6-8 Freddie Tagaloa, and 6-7 jr. Gerhard de Beer. Returning LT Layth Friekh is “only” 6-5. It’s easy to see how opposing defenders lose track of Arizona’s shortish RBs behind the Wildcats’ sky-scraping OLmen.
Offense U of A has. It’s the defense where major improvement is needed, especially with former Pac-12 POY Scooby Wright now having moved on to the NFL. Tasked with improving the defensive unit—a 3-3-5 previously under Rodriguez—is Marcel Yates, who was previously the defensive coordinator at Boise State. With the Broncos, Yates also employed a nickel base, but usually a 4-2-5 featuring a pair of NG-type DTs. Spring football didn’t reveal much about the new scheme, with Yates and other staff additions focusing on fundamentals, player development, and evaluation. Not much is expected to be known about the new defensive scheme until August. Says coach Rodriguez after dismissing several 2015 defensive coaches, “I don’t see it [the dismissals] as a step back. I think it is just a fresh start.”
Considering that U of A had to fill in for playmaking star LB Wright most of the season, the Wildcats return eight defenders who might be termed 2015 starters. Up front, where Yates is likely to use both a 4-2 and 3-3, DTs 6-1 sr. Sani Fuimaono and 6-4 jr. Luca Bruno have each added several pounds, as has 6-3 jr. DE Jack Banda (3 sacks LY). The LBs return some valuable experience in sr. Paul Magloire Jr. (72 Ts LY), sr. Jake Matthews (47), and jr. DeAndre’ Miller (50 Ts, 2 sacks), who gave flashes in spring of being a much-improved pass rusher.
Sr. Tellas Jones (55 Ts, 3 sacks) returns to anchor the secondary. But the most promising talent is at CB, including 5-10 cover guy DaVonte’ Neal (63 Ts LY), 5-11 jr. Cam Denson (3 ints. LY), and 6-1 juco Dane Cruickshank, who has the size to swing to safety and the athleticism to become the tall cover guy that is so often needed in secondaries these days to counter the many jumbo wideouts in the country.
U of A will be breaking in a new punter and kicker TY, and that usually means a few STs slip-ups in the early going until the situation stabilizes.
Summary...It seems as if new def. coord. Yates is determined to add some valuable size to the Wildcats’ defense, a morphing 4-2-5/3-3-5. The front seven must improve in order to take the pressure off the frequently-overworked DBs who were burned so often LY. But defensive depth will be a problem until proven otherwise. However, Rodriguez’ offense—designed to operate fast, control the ball, and score plenty—seems ready to roll again in the Sonoran Desert, as long as QB Solomon and RB Wilson are over LY’s injuries. With only four conference road games, a healthy U of A figures to be in the South Division mix once again. Much will be learned about the changes on defense right away, as Arizona opens vs. BYU at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
The Wildcats were one of the nation’s premier “over” teams LY, with RichRod’s offense combining with the team’s vulnerable defense to produce 11 “overs” vs. only 2 “unders.”
UTAH (SUR 10-3; PSR 6-7; O/U 6-6-1. Defeated BYU 35-28 in the Las Vegas Bowl)...Last year was the fourth 10-victory season for Kyle Whittingham since promoted to the top spot in Salt Lake City back in 2005. But it was his first DD-winning season since Utah moved up to the deeply competitive Pac-12 five seasons ago. And, with several South Division foes dealing with QB issues and with UCLA having lost eight players in the NFL draft, there are some in the Beehive State who are already getting that Pac-12 championship-game feeling. The belief here is they better pump the breaks on that notion...at least until the Utes develop their passing attack and until November rolls around.
There is one thing that is certain in Salt Lake City, however. That certainty is that Whittingham will once again field one of the more-aggressive, physical, hard-hitting teams in the nation. After spring practice, Whittingham gave every indication his 2016 Utes will be no different, saying that his experienced OL (with four starters back) is 9 to 10 deep. With sr. TEs Siale Fakailoatonga and Evan Moeai back from last season’s injuries, jr. TE Harrison Hadley (4 TDC LY) returning, and freshman TE Chad Hekking flashing impressive skills in spring, those OL hogs should have plenty of help on the edge.
The front four on defense appears similarly impressive. DEs Kylie Fitts (7), Hunter Dimick (3), and Pita Taumoepenu (6) combined for 16 sacks last year and figure to improve upon that total TY. Fitts, who originally signed with UCLA, also had four forced fumbles LY to help the Utes finish a robust +13 in turnovers. 6-2, 310 jr. DT Lowell Lotulelei has been identified early as a potential future NFL first-round pick. Lotulelei and veteran interior mates Filipo Mokofisi & Stevie Tu’ikolovatu will lead the nation’s DT rotations in vowels, if nothing else.
Whittingham, who has long prioritized the recruiting, development and training of front-four pass rushers for his defense, admitted a while ago that perhaps his long-favored 4-3 scheme has become a “dinosaur,” outmoded by the proliferation of multi-receiver spread offenses in recent years. So, along with rotating his big men up front to great effect in recent years, Whittingham has been morphing his unit into a 4-2-5 on most downs. Whittingham, a bruising LB as a player at BYU, laments that the days of the 245 and 250-pound LBs might be over as defenses seek ways to get more speed on the field to counter the many no-huddle spread attacks. Even so, Utah needs some rebuilding at LB after losing a senior trio that combined for 230 tackles LY and helped limit foes to 3.3 ypc. Whittingham was thus pleased with the spring work of jr. Sunia Tauteoli (only one tackle LY), soph Cody Barton, and jr. Evan Eggiman, who showed the potential of being all-down LBs in the 4-2-5.
The five-man secondary returns three starters, including proven ballhawks jr. S Marcus Williams (5 ints. LY) and sr. CB Dominique Hatfield (4 ints.). However, the platoon lost its other starting CB—sr. Cory Butler-Byrd—a dual-position player whose talents are required this season at WR, a point of need on the Ute offense.
Last year, Utah ranked a lowly 106th in passing with just 180 yards per game. That total amounts to “chump change” in recent seasons that have often seen 700-yard games by some teams, many who pulled their starters in the fourth quarter.
It is that unproven passing attack of the Utes that requires a measure of restraint in enthusiasm in Salt Lake City. 6-7 QB Travis Wilson—with his several flaws, numerous injuries, and funky delivery—has completed his eligibility, as has sometimes-effective backup Kendal Thompson. There was a three-player competition at QB this spring that will continue into August.
Jr. lefthander Brandon Cox knows the offense best and did well in spring, but has just three career completions, all in reserve duty. Juco Troy Williams, who started one game at Washington in 2014 and then had 31 TDP in the JC ranks LY, showed the liveliest arm of the trio, but suffered a muscle injury prior to the spring “game.” Also, early-enrolling, 6-1 true freshman Tyler Huntley—the Gatorade POY in Florida—demonstrated a fiery side in spring that helped inspire his teammates. Huntley tossed 106 TDP as a prep, 42 as a senior. If his arm muscle is okay (as expected) in August, Williams appears to have the lead, due partly to his Pac-12 and JC experience.
With resolute RB Devontae Booker (1512 & 1261 YR the L2Ys) departed to the Denver Broncos, the new feature RB is slated to be 5-11, 205 sr. Joe Williams, who rushed for 121, 187, and 91 yards the last three games for Utah after Booker was lost to injury. Booker might have been harder to bring down, but Williams (4.35 speed) offers more of a big-play threat.
Even if the Ute QB situation stabilizes, the efficiency will depend greatly on the performance of the Ute WRs, who lost top wideout Kenneth Scott (39 recs.) to graduation and 5-8 soph sparkplug WR/KR Britain Covey (43 recs.) to an LDS mission. The 5-8 Covey also had 21 punt returns and 7 kickoff returns as a mighty-mite true freshman. Thus, the move of WR/CB Hatfield to offense, where he is expected to remain. Whittingham says his WR corps must step up in order for the Utah offense to succeed. Offering promise in the spring were 6-4 soph Tyrone Smith, 6-5 soph Caleb Repp, and 5-9 jr. slot guy Kyle Fulks. Utah has some quantity at both WR and TE. History will be the judge of just how much quality.
Special teams have often been an advantage for Utah in recent years, and that should not change this season with Andy Phillips (63 of 75 career FGs) back for his final campaign.
Summary...Last season, the Utes had to wait until the bowl season to renew hostilities with bitter “Holy War” rival BYU. This year, that grudge match will be Game Two, when the new Ute QB will have exactly one Utah start under his belt (an opening test vs. Southern Utah, which made the FCS playoffs LY). Utah’s Pac-12 slate includes at least five foes that will have new starting QBs in 2016. But the Utes are in the same QB boat! The South Division of the Pac-12 has always been tight and ultra-competitive, with lots of back and forth throughout October and November. It should be the same this season. And it will take a big surprise by one of their QBs for the Utes to win it.
Note that Whittingham is 29-19 as an underdog (2-1 LY) since taking over eleven years ago for Urban Meyer in Salt Lake City.
COLORADO (SUR 4-9; PSR 5-6-2; O/U 3-9-1)...Colorado, in many respects, lost a key player for 2016 before the Buffaloes ever even had him. How so? Texas Tech’s 6-5 graduate QB Davis Webb—who lost the Red Raiders’ starting job to the burgeoning Patrick Mahomes last season and thus decided to transfer for his final season of eligibility—announced in mid-May that his landing spot would be Cal. This after months of indicating that his choice would be Boulder, CO.
Davis, the starter for most of two seasons in the Red Raiders’ Air Raid offense, was coming off a shoulder injury and could not unseat Mahomes last year. His decision to replace Jared Goff in Sonny Dykes’ “Bear Raid” offense makes sense. But HC Mike MacIntyre was hoping Davis would stick with his early preference for Colorado inasmuch as well-established Buffalo QB Sefu Liufau suffered a foot fracture (the dreaded Lisfranc mid-foot fracture) in last year’s 11th game vs. Southern Cal. Liufau was understandably held out of spring, with only a measured, but hopeful, prognosis of being cleared by August camp.
With a healthy Liufau in the lineup, Colorado appeared to be on the ascent for 2016, even after losing its final five games last season and eight of nine in the Pac-12. Now, with the hope of a proven starting QB such as Davis gone, the aerial game in Boulder seems likely to regress if Liufau isn’t ready to go for 2016. The fourth-year senior likely would have taken his redshirt season had Davis decided to conclude his career in Boulder.
Now, unless Liufau is okay, the top candidates are 6-1 sr. Jordan Gehrke (12 of 24, 1 TD, 1 int. in three appearances LY) and 6-5, 230 redshirt freshman Steven Montez (46 TDs vs. only 3 ints. as a senior in El Paso, TX). Gehrke, a one-time walk-on, used his experience to develop confidence with his teammates in spring. But with his size and big arm, Montez has the bigger upside.
Other than the QB situation, Colorado seemed to be showing slow but steady progress under MacIntyre, who now finds himself under pressure at the start of his fourth season. Only 2-25 SU in Pac-12 play, MacIntyre has marginally improved the team’s recruiting, size, and overall competence since taking over. Not enough to satisfy the long-suffering Buffalo Nation, for sure. But the big, blowout losses of CU have declined in frequency. And last year, despite their 4-9 record, the Buffs were outscored by only 37 total points—357 to 320. Four of the nine losses were by 7 points or fewer. Yes, the Buffs are still too small and too thin overall. But a solid core returns on both offense and defense for this season.
For the infantry, 5-8 jr. Phillip Lindsay (653 YR, 4.7 ypc; 26 recs.) and 5-8, 195 soph Patrick Carr (272 YR) are proven, yet undersized ball carriers. 230-pound big back Christian Powell has graduated, but 5-10, 210 Michael Adkins II—who led the team with 209 YR in the first two games LY—is back after a serious hamstring injury finished his campaign in Game Three of 2015.
Star WR Nelson Spruce (89 recs.) is gone, but 5-11 jr. Shay Fields (42) leads a decent group of returnees. MacIntyre, however, would like to find a big-play, game-breaking WR like those present on so many Pac-12 teams. The team’s OL brings back four starters. The unit still lacks the muscle that would help the ground game. But MacIntyre hopes to turn the Buffs’ quickness up front to advantage by speeding up the tempo of the offense TY, joining most teams by featuring a fast-paced attack.
It might be said that eight starters are back on defense, which made some strides (in relative terms) last season, cutting its allowance to 27.5 ppg (70th nationally in the nation in a league of potent offenses). 6-3, 325 sr. starting NT Josh Tupou is back on the team to clog the middle after being suspended for all of last season. However, sr. DT Samson Kafovalu was suspended in April following a nightclub altercation. On the plus side, sr. DE Jordan Carrell (52 Ts LY) beefed up the Buffs’ front three by adding 15 pounds to 295.
Three of four starters return at the LB spots, including OLB Jimmie Gilbert (6 sacks), ILB Kenneth Olugbode (80 Ts), and sr. OLB/DE Derek McCartney (70Ts and 5 sacks). After allowing 5 ypc and 42% third-down conversions LY, the Buffs are far from fielding an SEC-style defense. But with 22 takeaways and 28 sacks in 2015, CU is at least getting closer to fielding a Pac-12-style defense.
This year’s secondary, benefiting from improved recruiting, could be a strength. Sr. CB Chidobe Awuzie rarely came off the field LY, tallying 90 tackles (very high for a CB), collecting four sacks, and should get a look from NFL scouts TY. 6-3 sr. CB Ahkello Witherspoon had 41 Ts and 2 interceptions. 6-1 soph corner Isaiah Oliver was the breakout player of the spring on defense. Sr. safety Tedric Thompson had 80 Ts and 3 picks. That type of veteran ball-hawking could prove useful in a season when many conference QBs lack starting experience to begin 2016.
HC MacIntyre says he was pleased in spring by the progress shown by sr. kicker Diego Gonzalez, who converted only 18 of 29 FGs LY. Gonzalez was only 10 of 19 from 40 or more yards...not good in the favorable thin air in Boulder.
Summary...The decision of Davis Webb to go to Berkeley instead of Boulder places even more importance on Sefu Liufau’s healthy recovery from his “dreaded’ Lisfranc surgery. Non-conference games vs. Colorado State and at Michigan, plus a rugged Pac-12 slate, were already going to make an improved record at Colorado difficult to achieve. Even a 6-6 mark in Boulder would seem to be a b-i-g stretch in anticipation. But HC MacIntyre has established a decent foundation at CU. However, without winning a few more games, the HC might not be around to develop the team further. It will take many more quality players for Colorado to move up the ladder in a league with so many high-profile programs.
NEXT UP: BIG TEN--PART I
NEXT UP: BIG TEN--PART I
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